Excerpt for Dawn: a True Story of Courage and Survival by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

DAWN: A True Story of Courage and Survival

By David J Naismith, copyright 2017

Smashwords edition

“…I learnt to my cost, with surprise and fear, that the risk of ‘losing oneself in a wood’ existed not only in fairy tales.” - Primo Levi, Italian chemist, on his journey home after being liberated from Auschwitz.

We met on a cold day in November, inside a warm comic book shop. I go there now and then, a few times a month. I collect old movies, and this place has kilometers of them to browse. There’s always a hidden gem there, waiting among the tight aisles.

“Hi! How are you?” I’d been standing in line, at the counter, with a copy of the 80’s movie Falling Down in hand, waiting my turn to pay. It caught me by surprise. This greeting had come from my right, from Dawn.

We had not met before. But in a strange way, it felt like we had. It was the way she said hello to me. She’d said it like we were old friends, and it felt good. She stood there, beaming up at me, with the kind of smile that only rarely passes my way.

We got to talking, for a while. She’s a card player – but not in the conventional sense. Dawn plays Yu-Gi-Oh and Magic, role playing games, with a group of friends. She’s in to all things Fantasy, and adores superheroes. Superman, in particular, holds a place dear in her heart.

I remarked that summer was surely over now, and how cold it was getting outside these days. She agreed. I said something about how every year the cold seems colder, and that I was already looking forward to Spring, and Winter hadn’t even begun yet. She agreed. Then, out of the blue, she told me about the coldest she’d ever been.

When she was very young, Dawn lived in Labrador City, a remote town in the Province of Labrador and Newfoundland. She wasn’t born there; she was born in Woodstock, Ontario almost two thousand kilometers to the south. Her father was in the Canadian Armed Forces, Army, so as a child, she moved around a lot.

It was not an easy childhood. Dawn had been born with ‘left-side brain damage’. Her doctors had told her parents that she would not live past the age of four. Dawn was born the same year I was, 1969. Only a few months separate our birthdays. She has likely outlived the physicians who bestowed her this prognosis all those years ago.

Schooling was difficult. Dawn speaks with a minor speech impediment. She looks a little different too; she’s not built like an average kid. She learned at a different pace than other students her age. Her teachers found this frustrating. She cycled through a series of educators, and each one felt they were not up to the task. From teacher to teacher, school to school, young Dawn bounced. When I spoke with Dawn at subsequent meetings, she seemed to lament this fact the most. No one had wanted to teach her anything.

She was ten years old when the family was transferred to Lab City. There Dawn was enrolled at the local school. Labrador City was a small place back in the ‘70’s – still is. And, like in many small places, people talk. Apparently, some of the talk making the rounds that year was in reference to this new girl in school. Some parents warned their children to stay away from her, because she was different.

One day, while Dawn was walking home from school, she encountered a group of her schoolmates. On a quiet back road, they approached her, with unfriendly intentions. Their leader walked up and blocked her way.

“We don’t want any retards at our school,” he sneered. Dawn stood there, scared, not knowing what to say. The kids began to taunt her. Surrounding her, they wouldn’t let her leave. Then their ringleader shoved her hard, and she fell down, into the street.

Terrified, Dawn picked herself up, and began to run. The bullies chased her. With their taunts in her ears, she ran as fast as she could into the nearby woods. The snow slowed her progress, as it was deep winter at this point, but fear had lent her wings. Instinctively, into the forest she fled.

She ran until she was well and clear of the bullies. She ran until she found herself deep in the quiet wilds, the snow heavy on the trees and deep at her feet. Fearing that she was still being chased, she ran deeper still into the wild.

Dawn finally stopped running. In the silent forest she stood, listening for sounds of her pursuers. There was nothing. She had outrun them.

For a while, she waited. The serenity of the quiet woods must have been a small comfort. It was cold. Dawn was scared, and she cried.

After a while, she decided to make her way back to the road. Surely the bullies would be gone by now, and she could return home. Dawn began to walk back the way she’d come.

It would not be long before the light began to fail. Northern days are short in the wintertime. Night was approaching, and Dawn was having difficulty finding her way back through the woods. She got turned around, confused, and in short order, became lost.


Allow me a personal observation here. I would like to underline just how easily this can happen. You may find it incredulous that someone can become hopelessly lost, so quickly, and so close to civilization.

I can attest to the ease with which this can happen. I, like Dawn, am also an Armed Forces child. My father was a Search and Rescue pilot in the Canadian Air Force, and I was raised in the lore of military survival tactics. One of the first books I ever read was the classic RCAF handbook entitled “Down, But Not Out” – a practical survival manual issued to Air Force personnel in the event their aircraft crash-landed in the wilderness. That book, an unequalled wealth of knowledge in the science of keeping alive in the bush, was standard issue and in the pocket of all pilot flight suits back in those days. My father let me read it when I was four years old; it was my first love of literature.

I also have a diploma in Forestry, and have spent most of my life in the woods. I have walked the length of Canada, with little more than a backpack and boots – believe me when I say that getting lost in the bush is as easy as falling out of bed in the morning.

It’s quite remarkable, what happens to the human mind when it’s confronted with the overwhelming, immutable power of the wilderness. You can walk three feet off the trail in this country and become instantly, irrevocably lost, in a matter of seconds. Everything looks the same; there are no spatial reference points to anchor your thought processes, no semblance of logic or reason to grasp. Emotions soon take over in the absence of familiarity and rationality. Fear, of a depth unimaginable, takes root. Waves of panic rise within. You can wander for days in this purgatory. And you can do this only a few kilometers from your vehicle, camp, or home. It happens. When it happens to you, how you handle it means everything.

Dawn handled it the best she could. For a long time, the ten-year-old hiked doggedly through the forest, to find her way back to familiar ground. It was no good; there were no beacons, no road signs in that blue wood to comfort her eyes. There were only endless trees, the exiting daylight, and the relentless cold.

As she traipsed through the woods, Dawn finally came to something she recognized. It was a dead tree, gnarled and silver in the dusky light. Unique among the scenery, she’d seen it before. That could mean only one thing – she’d been here before. Realizing that she’d walked in a large circle, Dawn choked back her frustration, and began wading through the waist-deep snow once again. She hiked through the darkening woods, the snow filling her boots.

The miles she made didn’t matter. Every time she walked, she ended up right back where she’d started. After hours of hiking through the bush, she would find herself beside that same dead tree. This too is a more common phenomenon than one may expect. In the absence of visual referential cues, a person will, by default, wander in a vast orbital movement across an unfamiliar landscape. Our ‘internal compass’ becomes unreliable, and under such conditions, it is natural for us to walk in circles.

Soon the dark came. I asked Dawn what that moment was like, what went through her mind when it occurred to her that she would not be going home that day. She just shook her head.

Cold. Darkness. Alone. Dawn knew she would not make it out of the woods tonight. She had to do something to fend off the sub-zero temperatures. The wind was freezing, whistling through the trees, piercing her jacket and pants. She knew right away what she must do.

Dawn began digging out a shelter in a snow drift among the frozen trees. In the growing darkness, she tunneled out a shallow cave. It was difficult with her fingerless mittens, so she was forced to take them off and dig with her bare hands.

In time, she had carved out a small hole in the snow, barely large enough to accommodate her body. She squeezed inside as the last of the daylight bled away and was replaced by the dark blues of night. Shivering and crying, she huddled there, awaiting morning, hoping that someone would find her.

When morning finally returned, Dawn crawled out of her snow cave and into the weak winter light. She was freezing, but she had survived. Looking around at her surroundings, the sunlight illuminated a stark and alien landscape. More snow had fallen during the night.

There were only two choices: stay put and wait for rescue, or make another attempt to walk out of the woods and back to safety. She began to hike, in the direction that seemed best. Once more she found herself struggling to make headway through the deep snow. It kept filling her boots, and she was forced to stop and empty them, time after time. Her feet were constantly cold, and Dawn grew exhausted trying to push her small frame through the waves of drifts through the forest.

Several times, she could hear distant snowmobiles, racing and whining unseen across the landscape. Though she did not know it at the time, those snowmobilers were searching for Dawn. Word was out in town now, that a little girl was missing in the woods. Search parties had been organized and sent forth.

She knew those snowmobiles represented salvation though, so Dawn tried to walk in the direction she’d heard them coming from. But sounds like that in the woods are mischievous and misleading; they came from different directions, and would fade away as quickly as they’d arrived. All day she could hear them, but none passed anywhere near her.

Evening approached. Dawn was tired, shivering, and her feet were stinging from the cold. As the sun began to sink once more, she knew there would be no hope of getting out of this place before nightfall. She had wandered far, but the forest had remained as confounding as a maze to a mouse. Once again, Dawn set about digging a hole in the snow to shelter herself from the biting winds of the second bitter night to come.

The interior of a snow cave can be, surprisingly, quite warm. Snow is an excellent insulator, and even with no other heat source than body warmth, the temperature inside such a shelter can remain comfortably above zero though the mercury plunges well below freezing outside. Windchill factors are cut down significantly, body heat is retained, and a snug hole in the snow has saved many a winter traveler’s lives.

Though warm enough in her snow cave to get some rest after an exhausting day, Dawn still cried herself to sleep that night.

The following sunrise brought little comfort as well. Dawn tried to stay put and wait for rescue, but she grew too cold, and decided to keep moving. Once again, she set off blindly into the forest, hoping to find her way out, or to signal a searcher. The sounds of the snowmobiles returned. Dawn tried vainly to follow them, but they vanished, coming and going in the distance throughout the day.

She walked for a long time. Hunger grew; there was nothing to eat but snow. She flailed through the towering trees, each step draining her strength. Several times she came across her own trail, and she knew once again that she was going around in circles. It was hopeless. Finally, at the end of the day, her little feet burning in her snow-packed boots, Dawn realized she had no choice. She would have to dig in and spend yet another night in the lonely woods.

She crawled into her snow cave and did her best to warm up. She took her boots off and knocked the snow from them. Her feet were numb, and her hands burned from digging her shelter. She was hungry, so she ate some more snow. The hunger did not go away. Dawn curled up in her shelter, and tried to get some sleep.

Early the next morning, as the pale sunlight returned to the frozen land, Dawn heard muffled sounds coming from outside. Something was stirring near the mouth of her cave. She listened to the faint rustlings, unsure of what they were. Then, a face suddenly appeared at the entrance to her shelter.

The face was that of a fox. It peered inside Dawn’s cave, and stood there for a long moment. She stared in amazement at the curious animal, who stared right back at her. It sniffed the air, nose twitching, a few inches away. Dawn was not afraid. The fox meant no harm, she could tell. Eventually it trotted away, and Dawn was sad to see it leave. It was the first kind face she’d seen in four days.

She crawled from her shelter and stood once more alone in the wilds. She could not feel her feet anymore. Hunger was gnawing from within, and Dawn knew she would have to tackle the deep drifts and frozen miles, once again. With a new determination, she set out to find her way home.

All day she battled the waist-high snow. For a long time, there was just the sound of her struggles echoing in the deep silences of the woods. Now and then the faint roar of a snowmobile would reach her ears. People were looking frantically for her. In the Search and Rescue circles, when trying to find someone lost in the woods, the rule of thumb is that after the third night has passed, there is a 50/50 chance that a rescue mission will become instead a body recovery mission.

Late in the day, Dawn found herself near the edge of the forest, where it met the shores of a large frozen lake. She staggered to the rim of the treeline, and looked out over the vast white desert before her. Though a cold wind blew, she could hear the engines of snowmobiles swirling across the ice.

Soon, she was able to see small black dots racing across the flats. The sound of their engines grew louder. They were coming closer!

Dawn began to jump and raise her arms to the sky. She yelled and made as much commotion as she could. Could they see her? Her tiny form against the sprawling backdrop of the dark trees must have been all but invisible. She kept jumping, waving, reaching her arms out as far as they would go.

One of the snowmobile engines suddenly slowed down, and the little black dots soon looped around to take a closer look at what could have been only the tiniest of movements that had caught their eye. Dawn watched as her rescuers approached. They had found her; it was over!

Dawn was taken immediately to hospital upon return to civilization. She was exhausted, starving, and borderline hypothermic. Safe at last and under doctor’s care, she had a huge dinner of chicken and potatoes, and then promptly fell into a long sleep.

Her feet had been mauled by frostbite – they were “all white”, and she spent the next three weeks in hospital with heavy bandages wrapped around her legs, from her knees to her toes. Miraculously, she’d lost no appendages, but to this day, her feet, and her hands, are hyper-sensitive to the cold.

Dawn told me all this with that irrepressible smile. As I listened, I realized just how odd life can be. And how lovely it is that someone no one had wanted to teach can share such a lesson with us all.


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